There's a hint of Billie Holiday in Molly Johnson's voice. She does one of Billie's own compositions, Don't Explain, on Molly Johnson, her recently released CD (Oasis). Sitting across from her in a downtown Toronto bar, I can even see a facial resemblance. "I always say, 'I'm not like Billie. I'm because of Billie, and Ella, and Eartha Kitt and all the rest.' They went through so much adversity. So I get to walk through the front door of the club, with my faculties more or less intact."
The record company, part of Allan Gregg's Song Corp., and Molly herself, have high hopes for the new record. It's a sophisticated, jazzy piece of work, and aside from Don't Explain and a number by Elvis Costello, it is made up of original material, most of it with lyrics by Molly and music by producer and keyboard player Steven MacKinnon.
If it hits, there is a sense in which Molly Johnson has been working toward it all her life. She first trod the boards at 5. "My mother knew Ed Mirvish, and when he needed kids for his touring shows, my older brother and sister and me would appear." That would be Clark, an actor ( Homicide: Life on the Street) and TV director ( Homicide, The West Wing) and Tabitha, now a children's entertainer on CBC-TV. "I remember being in Annie Get Your Gun, Finian's Rainbow, Porgy and Bess." She also remembers being taken to matinees at long-gone jazz clubs like the Colonial and the Town and Country as a child. "My parents were tone deaf, but they loved musicians. They met Billie Holiday in the fifties."
It was a mixed marriage. Her mother, white, was a founder of CUSO. Her late father, to whom the new record is dedicated, was a former pro-football player, with the Philadelphia Eagles ("that was his ticket out of the ghetto") and later a professor in the Athletics Department at Ryerson. "Toronto wasn't the multicultural mecca it is now." Molly was sent to the National Ballet School. "My mother thought the theatre was a safe option. I didn't want to be a dancer, I wanted to be a choreographer." In any case, by her midteens she was singing in bands. "It was strictly illegal, I was too young to be in those bars."
That was maybe 25 years ago. The bands had names like Billy Reed and Street People ("he's an electrician in New Jersey now"), and then there were the years on Queen Street, the 10 years spent living at the Cameron House. She hooked up with Norman Orenstein ("my psychic twin, and still a good friend") and the bands had names like Alta Moda and the Infidels. There were record deals but no lasting success.
The Infidels deal in the early nineties led to a period she describes on the back sleeve of the new CD as her "black hole."
"The record company, IRS, went under but my publishing stayed with them. It took a long time to disentangle myself from that." Frustrated at being unable to record, one solution was to organize an annual concert called Kumbaya to raise money for people living with AIDS. There were four such concerts in all and they raised some $800,000. She was still tangled up with IRS when Steven MacKinnon, a jingle producer with whom she had worked, approached her with the idea of doing a record. Over a couple of years, largely at his home studio, they recorded the new album.
One musician credited on the record comes as a surprise: that's Stéphane Grappelli, the late French jazz violinist. "We were surprised too." It turned out MacKinnon had thought he would be just right for one song, Long Wave Goodbye, and had sent a tape of it to his New York manager. "I don't know if the manager liked it, but he did. He asked for some references, and I gave him some -- I think Oscar Peterson was one. He checked them out, and then he came to Toronto to play at Roy Thomson Hall and we spent this fabulous afternoon listening to him do take after take of our song in the studio. He was this elegant, gorgeous creature. And then he died." It was Grappelli's last recording.
One of the songs is by Gordie Johnson and TV personality Dan Gallagher. "Gordie is no relation, but he wishes. I knew Gordie when he played bass. I was in a group with him in the late eighties -- it was a jazz group. We played standards." Another song is by Lisa Dalbello. "She's a very clever girl. We became very good friends." Then there's Doug Riley, Dr. Music, who plays on several tracks and contributes the haunting melody to Night Comes, which, in a stripped-down arrangement, is one of the more memorable numbers on the album. Aside from Gordie Johnson, who plays on a couple of tracks, guitar is provided by James McCollum (Prozzak, Philosopher Kings) and jazzers Kevin Breit and Ted Quinlan. "I'm very proud, I have four of the best guitarists in the country on my record."
My favourite track on the new record is Monkey, and it's one of Molly's favourites as well. " Monkey. You know, it could be drugs. A monkey on your back."
"Monkey likes to climb the trees/Monkey likes to pull your sleeve/And if you don't think he's a tease/You don't know monkey at all."
I smell a hit.